November 21, 2007

USC Preview

The nation's lone Thanksgiving Day Division I football game will be played at 6 p.m. MST between No. 6 Arizona State and No. 11 USC in front of a sold out Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe and televised nationally by ESPN.

With the Sun Devils (9-1; 6-1 in the Pac-10) in sole possession of first place in the Pac-10 and USC (8-2; 5-2) in a second place tie, this game has BCS Bowl Game ramifications, with the winner being the most likely conference team to play in the Rose Bowl.

USC has won 71 of its last 80 games (including seven straight against ASU) and its coach, Pete Carroll, is the winningest active Division I coach. He has yet to lose in November (22-0) since taking over the Trojans.

In recent years, ASU had had its chances against USC. Two years ago it led 21-3 at halftime before the Trojans ran all over the Sun Devils -- who were without injured linebacker Dale Robinson -- following the intermission for a 38-28 win. Last year, in Los Angeles, ASU came back from a 21-0 deficit to lose 28-21.

Sun Devil coach Dennis Erickson, once a leading candidate for the head coaching vacancy at USC in 2000 after he led Oregon State to a Fiesta Bowl win, was effusive in his praise for the Trojans this week.

"You look at them and there's not a weakness that I see, offensively," Erickson said. "You look at them defensively, and they're as good as they're ranked. Their stats show how good they are and they've got a lot of good players to do it. They play well together. They're coached very well by Nick Holt and by Pete (Carroll). We haven't seen a defense close to it. They're just a good football team.

"Believe me, I'm not the chamber of commerce for USC, by any means. But you've also got to understand the tradition that they do have."

Even so, the Sun Devils have approached this week just like any other. From watching practices in recent days, you wouldn't know if ASU was getting ready to play San Diego State or USC. The players have been very loose and the team has taken on Erickson's even-keeled demeanor.

Erickson has stressed to his team that he's been in plenty of big games like this one, and he's excited from the to have the same opportunity.

And this is a major league opportunity; the biggest game in Tempe in over 10 years, without question.

The Trojans appear to be improving in recent weeks, with numerous players coming back from injury, including quarterback John David Booty, who suffered a broken finger and was unable to keep the Trojans from losses to Stanford and Oregon as a result, and several players in the offensive front.

Even though this isn't as potent a USC as we've seen in recent years, it's extremely capable when its key players are healthy and firing on all cylinders. Carroll's squad has averaged over 400 yards per game in total offense, and it's been one of great balance.

The biggest key for ASU's defense will be stopping the rushing attack of the Trojans, which are led by senior Chauncey Washington, a physical, 215-plus pound tailback who rushed for 220 yards and one touchdown against Cal in the team's last game. Washington is averaging 83.1 yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry, and he has eight rushing touchdowns.

ASU struggled a bit with defending mobile quarterbacks on its last two games against Oregon and UCLA, but Booty is a pure pocket passer, and he's shown that he's prone to throwing interceptions against similarly styled defenses as ASU, which leads the conference in pass efficiency defense.

USC doesn't have a lot of weapons in its passing game, but those it does have are excellent, namely (John Mackey Award semifinalist) senior tight end Fred Davis (44 receptions for 634 yards and five TDs), junior receiver Patrick Turner (41 receptions, for 464 yards and three TDs) and sophomore receiver Vidal Hazelton (39 receptions for 452 yards and three Tds). All are taller, rangy players who can present substantial mismatch opportunities in space.

Extremely physical at the point of attack with three senior and two junior starters along the offensive line, the Trojans will be a stiff match up for an ASU defensive line that has been just good enough to keep the Sun Devils ahead of most opponents.

USC and ASU are tied atop the league lead in red zone offense, and that stat may go a long way in determining which team wins this game, considering there may not be a lot of scoring opportunities. The Trojans lead the Pac-10 in scoring defense, giving up just 16 points per game, which the Sun Devils are second, yielding 18 points per game.

The Trojan defensive front seven is stacked with talent, led by senior All-American candidate Sedrick Ellis (48 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks) , one of the top tackle in the conference in recent years, senior end Lawrence Jackson (44 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks), and the ultra-talented veteran linebacking trio of Keith Rivers (70 tackles, 3.5 TFLs) and Rey Maualuga (64 tackles, 7.5 TFLs) and Brian Cushing (20 tackles, 2.5 TFLs).

In the secondary, USC has its youngest starter, sophomore free safety Taylor Mays (55 tackles, one INT), a freakishly gifted athlete, as well as junior strong safety Kevin Ellison (47 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, two INTs) and senior cornerback Terrell Thomas (34 tackles, three INTs).

This is a team that does a great job against the run, allowing just 92.2 yards per game on the ground, and should significantly test Erickson's squad, which won't have the hard inside run presence of Ryan Torain. Keegan Herring has speed that can make an impact on the edge but it remains to be seen how well he can run in between the tackles against this type of defense. Dimitri Nance is big and nimble, with great vision, but he's not a power back. It will be necessary for ASU to have some success running the football because USC is also excellent in the pass efficiency defensive department.

At this point in the season, it's clear that ASU doesn't do a great job of protecting quarterback Rudy Carpenter, as the Sun Devils give up more sacks than just about every team in the nation. ASU needs to off-set the weakness by having Carpenter get outside the pocket or get the ball to his running backs more in the flat or via screen passes. And Carpenter must get rid of the ball more often than he has when his first option isn't open, especially considering his thumb injury.

This game probably will be played close and not particularly high scoring. As is often the case, whichever team makes more mistakes (read: turnovers) will probably lose, but ASU probably has an even smaller margin for error in this regard given the history between the two schools. And a fast start for the first time in months wouldn't hurt, especially considering the Sun Devils' success in second halves. Avoiding big plays on special teams (freshman kicker returner Ronald Johnson is particularly talented) will also be essential for the Sun Devils.


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